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Lecture 8.....
Instructor:  Jeremy Jackson   |    Jan 4, 2017

Location:    Online    |   Blackboard


Key concepts - you will be responsible for knowing a number of definitions of key concepts. You may be asked to give an accurate definition and example of any of the key concepts. Key concepts are in italics, bolded and colored red throughout the notes.

Discussion questions - the lecture notes contain three discussion questions. These are to be answered on Blackboard at the times given in the syllabus.

Critical points - there are some points that require extra emphasis because they are fundamental to the example or concept being discussed. Critical points are bolded, in italics and colored orange.

Course learning objective questions - These are the questions given in the learning objectives document.

The Cognitive Era

Ulric Neisser is one of the most influential psychologists in the development of the cognitive era in psychology. The following is a series of excerpts from Chapter 1 of Neisser's famous text on cognitive psychology. My role in giving you Neisser's work and commenting on it, is to help you understand exactly what Neisser did say and why he said it. Hopefully, this will give you a clear understanding of exactly what cognitive psychology is about and why it has become an influential school of thought in modern psychology.

Discuss the sense in which cognition is similar to consciousness and, hence, the sense in which the problem of cognitive psychology is similar to the problem of structuralism and functionalism.

Discuss the historical use of analogies for the mind/mental phenomena in psychology. Talk about the types of analogies that have been used by psychologists and philosophers to help understand the nature of mental phenomena.

According to Neisser, what is cognition? What kind of phenomena are cognitions? Are cognitions directly observable? What is the role of cognitions in scientific psychology (how do we use the idea in psychology)?


Chapter I

The Cognitive Approach

Ulric Neisser (1923- )

It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As a hypothesis about localization of function (you should already know that Neisser is a CV theorist...he is entertaining a hypothesis about what beauty is .... that is something in the eye!), the statement is not quite right - the brain and not the eye is surely the most important organ involved. Nevertheless it points clearly toward the central problem of cognition. Whether beautiful or ugly or just conveniently at hand, the world of experience is produced by the man who experiences it.

The question is not really:

What organs are involved in perceiving beauty?

Rather, the central question is:

What IS beauty?

This is not the attitude of a skeptic, only of a psychologist. There certainly is a real world of trees and people and cars and even books, and it has a great deal to do with our experiences of these objects. However, we have no direct, immediate access to the world, nor to any of its properties. The ancient theory of eidola which supposed that faint copies of objects can enter the mind directly, must be rejected. Whatever we know about reality has been mediated, not only by the organs of sense but by complex systems which interpret and reinterpret sensory information (recall Plato and the Allegory of the Cave from Lecture 2...it's the same issue...do we see the world as it is or not?). The activity of the cognitive systems results in and is integrated activity of muscles and glands that we call "behavior." It is also partially - very partially - reflected in those private experiences of seeing, hearing, imagining, and thinking to which verbal descriptions never do full justice.

Here Neisser recognizes that seeing, hearing, etc., are PRIVATE! This is the problem with studying them scientifically according to the positivist - people like Watson, Skinner, Pavlov, etc,.

Notice that if these things are private, thy can not possibly be BRAIN STATES. Why not? Because brain states are public. They are part of objective MATERIAL reality.

Physically, this page is an array of small mounds of ink, lying in certain positions on the more highly reflective surface of the paper. It is this physical page which Koffka (1935) and others would have called the "distal stimulus," and from which the reader is hopefully acquiring some information. But the sensory input is not the page itself, it is a pattern of light rays, originating in the sun or in some artificial source, that are reflected from the page and happen to reach the eye. Suitably focused by the lens and other ocular apparatus, the rays fall on the sensitive retina, where they can initiate the neural processes that eventually lead to seeing and reading and remembering. These patterns of light at the retina are the so-called "proximal stimuli." They are not the least bit like eidola. One-sided in their perspective, shifting radically several times each second, unique and novel at every moment, the proximal stimuli bear little resemblance to either the real object that gave rise to them or to the object of experience that the perceiver will construct as a result.

It's important that we all see here the philosophical assumptions/arguments that rest at the foundation of cognitive psychology. Just like all other schools of thought in psychology, cognitive psychology also rests upon a particular philosophy of science approach to the problem of the nature of the world. What is the assumption here?

Social constructivism!

This is the idea that the world as we know it is constructed by us, it is not the real world. In fact, we know not what the real world is like, only what our constructions of it are like. Now, let's think about this for a minute. This view has implications. Consider the implications for the science of physics. This view means that the physicist has never discovered anything about reality itself.

As we now know, schools of thought in psychology also make assumptions about the nature of consciousness. In the remainder of this chapter, Neisser is going to talk a great deal about this issue. See if you can identify Neisser's philosophical theory of the nature of consciousness from the remainder. I have bolded and italicized sections of the paper that refer specifically to what Neisser believes consciousness (which he calls cognition) is.

Visual cognition, then, deals with the processes by which a perceived, remembered, and thought-about world is brought into being from as unpromising a beginning as the retinal patterns. Similarly, auditory cognition is concerned with transformation of the fluctuating pressure pattern at the ear into the sounds and the speech and music that we hear. The problem of understanding these transformations may usefully be compared to a very different question that arises in another psychological context. One of Freud's papers on human motivation is entitled "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915). The title reflects a basic axiom of psychoanalysis: that man's fundamental motives suffer an intricate series of transformations, reformulations, and changes before they appear in either consciousness or action. Borrowing Freud's phrase - without intending any commitment to his theory of motivation - a book like this one might be called "Stimulus Information and its Vicissitudes." As used here, the term "cognition" refers to all the processes by which the sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. It is concerned with these processes even when they operate in the absence of relevant stimulation, as in images and hallucinations. Such terms as sensation, perception, imagery, retention, recall, problem-solving, and thinking, among many others, refer to hypothetical stages or aspects of cognition.

So cognition is HYPOTHETICAL! This is scientific realism. But more than that, we hypothesize the existence of cognitions like seeing and thinking. What Is thinking you ask....it's a hypothetical, not directly observed process.

Given such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do; that every psychological phenomenon is a cognitive phenomenon. (This is a sort of renaming of consciousness here. Instead of using Titchener's and James' term - consciousness - Neisser uses the term cognition. Cognition then is not a new thing, it is a NEW WORD for an OLD THING). But although cognitive psychology is concerned with all human activity rather than some fraction of it, the concern is from a particular point of view. Other viewpoints are equally legitimate and necessary. Dynamic psychology, which begins with motives rather than with sensory input, is a case in point. Instead of asking how a man's actions and experiences result from what he saw, remembered, or believed, the dynamic psychologist asks how they follow from the subject's goals, needs, or instincts. Both questions can be asked about any activity, whether it be normal or abnormal, spontaneous or induced, overt or covert, waking or dreaming. Asked why I did a certain thing, I may answer in dynamic terms, "Because I wanted..." or, from the cognitive point of view, "Because it seemed to me.. . "

The cognitive viewpoint is by no means the only possible approach to psychology. Behaviorism, for example, represents a very different tradition, which is essentially incompatible with it. (Recall Kuhn who argued that new paradigms are incompatible with previous paradigms in science. It is not as if cognitive psychology is building on behaviorism, it is rejecting as the right way to address the problem). From Watson (1913) to Skinner (1963), radical behaviorists have maintained that man's actions should be explained only in terms of observable variables, without any inner vicissitudes at all. The appeal to hypothetical mechanisms is said to be speculative at best, and deceptive at worst. For them, it is legitimate to speak of stimuli, responses, reinforcements, and hours of deprivation, but not of categories or images or ideas. A generation ago, a book like this one would have needed at least a chapter of self defense against the behaviorist position. Today, happily, the climate of opinion has changed, and little or no defense is necessary (Recall Kuhn again. It was not a great scientific discovery that necessitated the rejection of behaviorism. It was the CLIMATE OF OPINION that changed.). Indeed, stimulus-response theorists themselves are inventing hypothetical mechanisms with vigor and enthusiasm and only faint twinges of conscience (Notice the reaction against positivism here. It's not that we are discovering hypothetical mechanisms, we are INVENTING them. But we still have a twinge of conscience because we really still know that science is observational in nature, and to INVENT something is not to OBSERVE it.). The basic reason for studying cognitive processes has become as clear as the reason for studying anything else: because they are there (Do you see the inconsistency here? Cognitive processes are hypothesized and invented but they are there!!!). Our knowledge of the world must be somehow developed from the stimulus input; the theory of eidola is false. Cognitive processes surely exist, so it can hardly be unscientific to study them.

Now, I want you to think about this. Neisser has just said that we are studying HYPOTHETICAL cognitive mechanisms that we have INVENTED but that SURELY EXIST. But isn't this the whole issue with positivism. Since the thing is hypothetical it doesn't surely exist. It may or may not exist and the positivist argues that scientists should only study things that they can show exist. So I think Neisser wants to have his cake and eat it too here. He wants to allow hypothetical mechanisms AND he wants to have the scientific legitimacy of directly, publicly observed facts of nature.

Another approach to psychological questions, a world apart from behaviorism, is that of the physiologist. Cognition, like other psychological processes, can validly be studied in terms of the underlying neural events. For my part, I do not doubt that human behavior and consciousness depend entirely on the activity of the brain, in interaction with other physical systems. Most readers of this book will probably have the same prejudice. Nevertheless, there is very little of physiology or biochemistry in the chapters ahead. At a time when these fields are making impressive advances, such an omission may seem strange. An example may help to justify it. For this purpose, let us consider recent work on the physical basis of memory.

So it's important to see that cognitions are not neural, brain processes. The brain processes PRODUCE, GIVE RISE TO or CAUSE cognitions but they are not cognitions themselves. So the brain is a CAUSAL PRECONDITON for psychological phenomena. Recall the question whether memories are in the brain from Lecture 1. Remember I gave the argument that memories are not in the brain but rather the brain is a causal precondition for memories. Just like an engine is a causal precondition for acceleration.

No one would dispute that human beings store a great deal of information about their past experiences, and it seems obvious that this information must be physically embodied somewhere in the brain. (It's not that memories are in the brain, it's that something is in the brain that is needed in order for us to have memories.) Recent discoveries in biochemistry have opened up a promising possibility. Some experimental findings have hinted that the complex molecules of DNA and RNA, known to be involved in the transmission of inherited traits, may be the substrate of memory as well. Although the supporting evidence so far is shaky, this hypothesis has already gained many adherents. But psychology is not just something "to do until the biochemist comes" (as I have recently heard psychiatry described); the truth or falsity of this new hypothesis is only marginally relevant to psychological questions. A pair of analogies will show why this is so.

So the justification for cognitive psychology itself is going to be two analogies. Once again we see the power of the analogy in the history of psychology.

First, let us consider the familiar parallel between man and computer. Although it is an inadequate analogy in many ways, it may suffice for this purpose. The task of a psychologist trying to understand human cognition is analogous to that of a man trying to discover how a computer has been programmed. In particular, if the program seems to store and reuse information, he would like to know by what "routines" or "procedures" this is done. Given this purpose, he will not care much whether his particular computer stores information in magnetic cores or in thin films; he wants to understand the program, not the "hardware." By the same token, it would not help the psychologist to know that memory is carried by RNA as opposed to some other medium. He wants to understand its utilization, not its incarnation.

Perhaps this overstates the case a little. The hardware of a computer may have some indirect effects on programming, and likewise the physical substrate may impose some limitations on the organization of mental events. This is particularly likely where peripheral (sensory and motor) processes are concerned, just as the input-output routines of a program will be most affected by the specific properties of the computer being used. Indeed, a few fragments of peripheral physiology will be considered in later chapters. Nevertheless they remain, in the familiar phrase, of only "peripheral interest."

The same point can be illustrated with quite a different analogy, that between psychology and economics. The economist wishes to understand, say, the flow of capital. The object of his study must have some tangible representation, in the form of checks, gold, paper money, and so on, but these objects are not what he really cares about. The physical properties of money, its location in banks, its movement in armored cars, are of little interest to him. To be sure, the remarkable permanence of gold has some economic importance. The flow of capital would be markedly different if every medium of exchange were subject to rapid corrosion. Nevertheless, such matters are not the main concern of the economist, and knowledge of them does not much simplify economic theory.

Psychology, like economics, is a science concerned with the interdependence among certain events rather than with their physical nature. Although there are many disciplines of this sort (classical genetics is another good example), the most prominent ones today are probably the so-called "information sciences," which include the mathematical theory of communication, computer programming, systems analysis, and related fields. It seems obvious that these must be relevant to cognitive psychology, which is itself much concerned with information. However, their importance for psychologists has often been misunderstood, and deserves careful consideration.

Although information measurement may be of little value to the cognitive psychologist, a branch of the information sciences, computer programming, has much more to offer. A program is not a device for measuring information, but a recipe for selecting, storing, recovering, combining, outputting, and generally manipulating it. As pointed out by Newell, Shaw, and Simon (1958), this means that programs have much in common with theories of cognition. Both are descriptions of the vicissitudes of input information.

We must be careful not to confuse the program with the computer that it controls. Any single general-purpose computer can be "loaded" with an essentially infinite number of different programs. On the other hand, most programs can be run, with minor modifications, on many physically different kinds of computers. A program is not a machine; it is a series of instructions for dealing with symbols: "If the input has certain characteristics ... then carry out certain procedures .. . otherwise other procedures ... combine their results in various ways ... store or retrieve various items ... depending on prior results ... use them in further specified ways ... etc." The cognitive psychologist would like to give a similar account of the way information is processed by men.

This way of defining the cognitive problem is not really a new one. We are still asking "how the mind works." However, the "program analogy" (which may be a better term than "computer analogy") has several advantages over earlier conceptions. Most important is the philosophical reassurance which it provides. Although a program is nothing but a flow of symbols, it has reality enough to control the operation of very tangible machinery that executes very physical operations. A man who seeks to discover the program of a computer is surely not doing anything self-contradictory!

Do you see now that this computer analogy of the human being (program is the mind, brain is the chip) is critical to the philosophical commitment that the cognitive psychologist has made. We are committed to the assumption that the human works like a computer. This is logically very similar to Mill's philosophical assumption that the human works like a machine. BUT I think a mistake is made by Neisser above. He is not asking "HOW THE MIND WORKS", he is theorizing about WHAT THE MIND IS. He is theorizing that the mind is an information processing system. Well is it? What is the EVIDENCE he has for this claim. You guessed it. He has the same evidence as Mill and Titchener had......none. His claim is PHILOSOPHICAL not evidentiary.

There were cognitive theorists long before the advent of the computer. Bartlett, whose influence on my own thinking will become obvious in later chapters, is a case in point. But, in the eyes of many psychologists, a theory which dealt with cognitive transformations, memory schemata, and the like was not about anything. One could understand theories that dealt with overt movements, or with physiology; one could even understand (and deplore) theories which dealt with the content of consciousness; but what kind of a thing is a schema? If memory consists of transformations, what is transformed? So long as cognitive psychology literally did not know what it was talking about, there was always a danger that it was talking about nothing at all. This is no longer a serious risk. Information is what is transformed, and the structured pattern of its transformations is what we want to understand.

So here is the philosophical theory about the nature of consciousness in a nutshell. According to this view,


"a set of structured patterns of information transformation."

This is the subject matter of modern cognitive psychology.

Now, not only is this claim philosophical, it's also rather difficult to grasp conceptually. Recall that I said in a previous lecture that if you can't even imagine it, be skeptical about whether or not it COULD POSSIBLY exist. Can you imagine a synthesizer in the mind? Can you imagine what a mental element is like? Can you imagine a toe planning to go to London? Can you imagine a structured pattern of information transformation in the mind? I can't imagine any of these things. Can you....?

But also notice HOW SIMILAR this is to what Wundt and Titchener were doing:

1) It is an analogy

2) it posits odd things in the mind - not apperceptive synthesizers and mental elements but patterns of information processing

3) It relies heavily on an analogy taken directly from a current area of science/engineering.

Back to Neisser...

A second advantage of the "program analogy" is that, like other analogies, it is a fruitful source of hypotheses. A field which is directly concerned with information processing should be at least as rich in ideas for psychology as other fields of science have been before. Just as we have borrowed atomic units, energy distributions, hydraulic pressures, and mechanical linkages from physics and engineering, so may we choose to adopt certain concepts from programming today. This will be done rather freely in some of the following chapters. Such notions as "parallel processing," "feature extraction," "analysis-by-synthesis," and "executive routine" have been borrowed from programmers, in the hope that they will prove theoretically useful. The test of their value, of course, is strictly psychological. We will have to see how well they fit the data.

How well did the idea of the mental element, or immediate experience fit the data? The problem is that in some sense the CAN'T fit the data. They ARE analogies! As William James said 80 years before, they are as real as...



Now we should be prepared to identify patterns of change in the history of psychology. Let's go back to pre-psychophysics. Back then, it was felt that the mind could not be studied scientifically. The mind, it was thought was a metaphysical entity like the soul.

But then the psychophysicists came along and started to measure objectively observable phenomena such as reaction time, number of words recalled, etc. Even Wundt himself did many of these kinds of studies. But alas, this non-metaphysical approach was to loose it's grip again to Wundt (a bit) and Titchener (a lot) who began to talk about consciousness as a metaphysical entity analogous to an object with elemental structure. So psychology returned again to metaphysical ways of thinking about the nature of consciousness.

Then we had Watson who reacted violently to Titchener's methods with a complete (he thought) rejection of metaphysical speculation and introspective observation. In the end though, Watson's formulation of psychology gave in to the cognitive school of thought.

In this new cognitive school of thought, metaphysical style theorizing about the nature of unobserved and poorly defined cognitive entities was allowed. This is illustrated by the Neisser paper you have just read. The view was given logical support by Cronbach and Meehl's formulation of CV theory.

Today though, there exists a new pressure to become more objective and rely less on metaphysical theorizing about the nature of conscious phenomena. THIS IS WHY WE SEE SO MANY PICTURES OF BRAINS in psychology today. Brains are objectively observable, non-metaphysical entities. This is why we cleave so strongly to the idea that...

psychological phenomena are brain phenomena.

So why has this shift towards metaphysics and then away from it taken place in psychology? I said it in the first lecture and it is said in Chapter 1 of your text. The reason I made such a big deal about the text rejecting the history of psychology before it became a science (that is rejecting philosophy as a method of study) is that this represents the very basic tension that has always existed in our discipline.


But what happens when we become scientists? The behaviorists wanted to study only behavior because it was directly observable and well-defined (operationist/positivist/scientific). But in doing this they rejected our very subject matter. They rejected mental phenomena as a subject matter of PSYchology.

Recognizing the problem with this, the CV theorists and cognitive psychologists put back poorly defined, never observed mentalistic phenomena in to psychology. But this has caused us a fair bit of embarrassment and a number of problems as well. When asked to clearly define intelligence and say what it is, the psychologist has serious difficulty. My commentary on the paper above shows just how one gets into difficulty with poorly defined hypothetical constructs in science.

So what's the solution to all of the ambiguity and conceptual confusion associated with CV theory and cognitive psychology.........THE BRAIN. This is objective! But you see, we have the same problem with studying the brain as the behaviorists had with studying behaviors. The brain is not a psychology entity, it is a physical one. And physical entities are studied by biologists and pathologists, not psychologists.

So what's the solution then? One possible solution is given in the next lecture.

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